It’s that time of year again: March Madness is near, sure, and yes, some cherry blossoms have bloomed. But what’s that familiar pang of spring you just felt deep inside your bones?
The latest complication is that Sean Doolittle, a left-handed reliever, will almost certainly start the regular season on the injured list after undergoing elbow surgery last summer. And once Francisco Pérez, Evan Lee and Alberto Baldonado were sent to minor league camp Tuesday, the remaining left-handed relievers in big league camp, sans Doolittle, are Anthony Banda, Matt Cronin and Jose Ferrer.
Banda, 29 and a nonroster invite to spring training, pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees in 2022, yielding 20 earned runs in 26⅔ innings. Cronin, 25, has not pitched above Class AAA, while Ferrer, newly 23, has not pitched above AA. The options, then, are a mix of uninspiring and inexperienced. But while the Nationals have papered over a lack of lefties in the past, Manager Dave Martinez seems, well, uninterested in a plan of that nature.
“Around here, it hasn’t been that big of a priority,” Martinez said, laughing, when asked Monday how much of a priority it is to have a lefty in his bullpen. “But it’s nice. . . . Look, last year, we had Doolittle. Even though his role changed, he was huge. I hope that somebody steps up this year. When Doolittle is ready, he could be that guy again.
“I would really like to have a lefty. In a perfect world, two lefties would be great because then you can do things early and late. But we’ll see.”
The Nationals’ lefty reliever conundrum has evolved in recent years. The sport and its rules have changed. The club and its short-term goals have, too. Take the spring of 2019, when Washington had Doolittle and Matt Grace, then still went out and signed Tony Sipp. The thinking was that Sipp, a career lefty specialist, would face Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman and Robinson Canó in big spots.
(On Opening Day, Martinez called for Grace instead of Sipp to face Canó in a jam, feeling Grace’s sinker would fare best against Cano’s uppercut swing. Instead, Canó poked a sinker for an RBI single in the first loss of a 19-31 start for the Nationals. Somehow, things worked out for that team.)
Looking back, having three lefties, no matter their names, was an embarrassment of riches compared with the current roster battles. Heading into the shortened 2020 season, Doolittle and veteran Sam Freeman were the two lefties in an expanded bullpen. Heading into 2021, Sam Clay and veteran Luis Avilán held those spots. Then last April, Washington dove headfirst into the season with Doolittle and nine righties.
The three-batter minimum rule, introduced in 2020, has lessened the importance of matchup lefties. But if any bullpen is going to be successful — and Washington’s was a surprising strength for parts of last year — it needs at least one lefty to retire the other team’s left-handed hitters in leverage situations.
Once Harper returns from injury, the Phillies will have him and Kyle Schwarber in the middle of their order. With the New York Mets, a lefty could face Brandon Nimmo and then flip the switch-hitting Francisco Lindor from the left side to the right (granted, Lindor was only marginally worse as a righty last year). And the Atlanta Braves have strong left-handed batters in Michael Harris, Matt Olson and switch-hitter Ozzie Albies.
And that’s just in the Nationals’ division.
So will Washington initially roster Banda, Cronin or Ferrer? Two of them? Or come the end of this month, will Martinez be stuck explaining why [insert name of right-handed reliever] negates the need for a lefty because they should have good reverse splits? Wander Suero, Will Harris and Andrés Machado, who is still with the club, are in the esteemed group of pitchers who have been used for that logic. Veteran reliever Alex Colomé and his cutter could join them soon, though he has struggled with the new pitch clock.
Banda has been much tougher on lefties than righties in his six-year career, with righties teeing him up too often. He added a sinker in 2022, dropping the usage of his four-seam fastball (31.9 percent, according to Statcast) to below his change-up (37.4 percent). The sinker accounted for about a fifth of his total pitches. His slider accounted for close to a tenth. In his first three exhibition appearances, he walked two and fell behind in a number of other counts. But against the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, he logged a one-two-three fourth inning, throwing six of his eight pitches for strikes.
“Being able to throw a slider, being able to spin it, I’m still working on it,” Banda said, noting his mechanics were off with the pitch after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018. “But it’s still something I can value and use. … That and I really [worked on] the [sinker] this offseason.”
Ferrer is a hard thrower who touched 97 in his early bullpen sessions in Florida. He has appeared early in recent exhibitions, perhaps because the staff wants to test him against major league hitters. In his most recent outing, he faced the Houston Astros’ Martín Maldonado, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and José Abreu in the third. In the outing before that, he faced the Miami Marlins’ Jorge Soler, Garrett Cooper and Avisaíl García in the third. Beyond his high-velocity fastball, Ferrer has a change-up and is reintroducing a slider into the mix. He has been a very fast riser in the Nationals’ system and has fans in the front office.
Cronin, a fourth-round pick in 2019, has complemented a riding four-seam fastball with a curve and the occasional splitter. He is also toying with a slider to potentially replace his curve. He dominated for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators last year, posting a 0.00 ERA in 16⅓ innings, before he was promoted to AAA. In 35⅔ innings with the Rochester Red Wings, he yielded 30 hits and 14 earned runs and struck out 8.6 batters per nine. Like Ferrer, he was added to the 40-man roster in November so other teams could not take him in the Rule 5 Draft.
As with anything for this team, development will be much more important than the standings in 2023. That could mean Cronin or Ferrer are well ahead of Banda in the pecking order, assuming the prospects continue to be solid in exhibitions. It could also lead the club to replace Doolittle with Banda so Ferrer and Cronin can get more reps in the minors.
Lefties and righties aside, it feels safe to pencil in Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Carl Edwards Jr. and Thaddeus Ward, a Rule 5 selection in December, for the Opening Day bullpen. From there, with four spots left, there’s a lot more to consider than the surest path to a win.
Andrew Golden and Barry Svrluga in West Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.